Puzzling Head-to-Heads in Women's Tennis History

Last week we looked at some of the biggest mismatches in the men’s game. What does the same analysis tell us about the most baffling women’s head-to-heads?

Carla Suarez Navarro’s bid for the Madrid title ended yesterday with her quarterfinal loss to Caroline Garcia. Although that must come as a disappointment to local fans, the Spaniard has multiple reasons to be proud of her result. Reaching the quarterfinal matches her best result at the event, having only advanced that far once previously, back in 2015.

How she got this far was also encouraging. The Spaniard survived two tough three set matches and kept her head in the match despite failing to convert multiple match points. The win over Elina Svitolina was the biggest of her run and make two back-to-back wins over the top 5 Ukrainian, bringing their head-to-head to 4-3 overall.

Although two straight wins is too few to be a streak, those unexpected results does make one wonder how much the unique style of Suarez Navarro, with her one-handed backhand and clay-minded defense, has been a factor in her wins over Svitolina and similarly aggressive players.

As we saw last week in the list of top 10 men’s crazy head-to-heads, we can look for mismatches of style by focusing on head-to-heads with the most surprising results, that is, match ups where the player most expected to win on the basis of their overall ability actually loses multiple times.

If we tally up the surprise with each match and limit to head-to-heads with 10 or more matches (enough for any mismatch to be unlikely due to chance alone) we get the 10 most bizarre head-to-heads shown below.

Steffi Graf takes the last two spots, the last being against Argentine Gabriela Sabatini. With a total of 40 professional matches against each other, Sabatini was the player Graf came up against the most in her career. On 11 of those occasions, Graf lost, 7 of those times when Graf was the World No. 1.

Still, that may not be too surprising to some given that Sabatini was a top 5 player for much of her career. The 4 defeats to Amanda Coetzer are more inexplicable on that basis, with Coetzer being outside of the top 10 in 3 of those 4 wins over Graf.

But Coetzer got her comeuppance against American Chanda Rubin, which takes the 5th most surprising head-to-head in the list. American Rubin never broke into the top 5 yet she had the upperhand against Coetzer in their careers with a 7-3 record.

As with the men’s list, we see multiple former Number 1s in the women’s top 10. In addition to Graf, Billie Jean King took 6 losses to Australian Dianne Balestrat, a player who never peaked about 19. 5 of the 6 losses were on Carpet, which points to a surface-specific style clash that was in Balestrat’s favour.

Interestingly, one head-to-head pits two Number 1s against each other: Jennifer Capriati and Serena Williams. From today’s perspective, we might not see anything unusual in Williams' 10 to 7 edge over rival Capriati. But we have to consider that their matches all took place before 2005, the first years of Williams' professional career. Given her relative newness to the tour, Williams' out-performed many expectations in her incredible 2002 and 2003 seasons, ones when Capriati had the bad luck to play and lose to a surging Serena 7 times.

The final player will give a close look to is one of the most decorated in the game: Martina Navaratilova. Two of Navaratilova’s rivalries appear in the list. While the rivalry most think of when they think of Navaratilova is her 56-match head-to-head against Chris Evert (80 matches including non-WTA events), she had extended rivalries against multiple players. Helena Sukova is one of the less discussed among these.

In their 32 meetings, Sukova won 6 times, which, though few compared to 26, still tallies up a large total surprise because of how dominant Navaratilova was in that period. One can’t help but wonder if facing a player from Czechoslovakia who had not defected had a role to play in those wins.

The second of Navaratilova’s rivalries take the most surprising spot in women’s tennis history. This goes to her 8-5 record against Belarusian Natalia Zvereva. Zvereva reached a career high ranking of 5 but was outside the top 10 for 3 of her 5 wins over Navratilova. Three of those wins also took place on clay, which was Zvereva’s best surface but Navratilova’s worse, relative to her incomprehensible records on hard and grass courts.

The women’s list of all-time mismatches shows us the role that surface has likely played in giving underdogs a chance at big wins in the past. With the style of the modern game becoming more and more uniform across surfaces, this could be something of a rarity in rivalries to come and gives us even more reason to follow how the Suarez Navarro-Svitolina match up unfolds.